Woman is most at home with 'old things'
Family: Husband, Robert Young "R.Y." Nelson, died in 1993. Children: Lisa, 52; Eric, 50; Andy, 48; Charlie, 43. Five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She lives with Charlie and a "black golden retriever mix" named Dusty.
Hobbies: Needlework, swimming, reading. Nelson likes to read mysteries, especially Stephen King, and watch crime shows such as "CSI" and "Law & Order." She once owned a needlepoint shop and described giving swim lessons as the love of her life.
"When I go, I want to be remembered for the swimming," she said.
Organizations: At some point, Nelson has been on the Jaycetts, Red Cross and Edgerton City Council. She also served as county jury commissioner.
"Oh, when I think of how active I used to be," she said with a groan.
Favorite music: Classical and Dixieland jazz. Nelson's father played banjo in a Dixieland band.
Quote: "I'm still trying to figure me out."
If you're looking for a lesson in Edgerton's history, you're first stop might be Judy Nelson. Nelson is featured as one of the Janesville Gazette's "People Who Matter". Kyle Geissler reports.
EDGERTON Judy Nelson fills her home with "old things."
There's the furniture created by her father, a cabinet maker for the Milwaukee Road.
"Grandmother's button box," a wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl, occupies a place of honor next to family photographs. The contents Nelson found in the box—a cross, a hot pad—hang framed next to a painting by her grandfather.
"I love old things," Nelson said. "They're comfortable. It's fun to imagine where they've been and who used them."
Nelson, 77, spends her time preserving the memory and artifacts of Edgerton's past. She helped launch Edgerton's annual Tobacco Heritage Days—serving on its board for its first 36 years—and the tobacco museum housed at the Edgerton Depot.
She carries the wealth and color of that past in her head, conveying it in a low, raspy voice. When she talks of Edgerton, she sees it as it used to be, a flourishing tobacco, lumber and labor hub.
"That woman is like a personal book of knowledge," said Leanne Cantwell, president of the festival board.
Ironically, one of Edgerton's greatest champions was not born there. Nelson grew up on the edge of Janesville's Courthouse Hill Historic District and didn't know a soul in Edgerton besides her husband and in-laws when she moved there in 1955.
"I didn't even know what tobacco looked like," she said.
She got involved in the Jaycetts, a female version of the Jaycees, to meet people. She became first executive secretary of the Edgerton Chamber of Commerce in the early 1970s, when the idea for Tobacco Heritage Days was born.
"Some of the people on the chamber thought—I guess maybe it was my idea—I said, 'Well why don't we have a festival?'" she said.
The museum followed after Nelson and others visited a tobacco museum in Danville, Virginia. Nelson loved learning about how Edgerton became the "Tobacco Capital of the World," and today she loves to tell the story to others.
She enjoys making friends of all ages through her efforts, she said.
Friends such as Casey Langan, who served as festival president in 1997.
"Here I was, 24, this young guy on the festival board with some new ideas, and Judy of all people really was my biggest cheerleader," he said.
Nelson retired from the festival board last summer and now focuses on the tobacco museum. She hopes more young people like Langan step up to continue preserving Edgerton's history.
And she's eager to see what happens to Edgerton in the future. She recalls the days the city had two or three of everything—grocery stores, florists, lumber yards and pharmacies.
"Looking down the street now, seeing all the holes where there used to be a building that was either burned or razed for some reason or another, is kind of sad," she said.